Since it’s October, October 7th was the 164th anniversary of his death, today is the 164th anniversary of the publishing of his obituary, and I’ll be 40 on my next birthday, I’m proud to present to you Thus Quoth the Poet: The Life and Times of Edgar Allan Poe.
To introduce my story, I’m going to open with a few selections from his Obituary. Stick with me. There is a point.
The Ludwig Obituary
“Edgar Allan Poe is dead. He died in Baltimore the day before yesterday. This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by it”
“He walked the streets, in madness or melancholy, with lips moving in indistinct curses, or with eyes upturned in passionate prayers for the happiness of those who at that moment were objects of his idolatry, but never for himself, for he felt, or professed to feel, that he was already damned. He seemed, except when some fitful pursuit subjected his will and engrossed his faculties, always to bear the memory of some controlling sorrow.”
“As a critic, he was more remarkable as a dissector of sentences than as a commenter upon ideas. He was little better than a carping grammarian.”
“In poetry, as in prose, he was most successful in the metaphysical treatment of the passions. His poems are constructed with wonderful ingenuity, and finished with consummate art. They illustrate a morbid sensitiveness of feeling, a shadowy and gloomy imagination, and a taste almost faultless in the apprehension of that sort of beauty most agreeable to his temper.”
– Selected Passages From the Obituary of Edgar Allan Poe signed Ludwing
The full text of the Ludwig Obituary is here, but don’t read it until you finish reading this post. I promise there is a point.
Poe was born Edgar Poe on January 19, 1809, in Boston, MA. He was orphaned at a young age when his mother died shortly after his father had abandoned the family.
Poe was taken in by John and Frances Allan of Richmond, VA. While Frances was quite fond of young Edgar, John never took to him so they never formally adopted him. He did take their name as his middle name to honor Frances and to spite John, and has been known as Edgar Allan Poe ever since.
He attended the University of VA for one semester but because his foster father hadn’t given him enough money, Poe resorted to gambling to make up the shortfall and left college shortly after broke.
He returned home, he found that his fiancée had married another man. His beloved foster mother died.
He then joined the military and promptly failed as an officer’s cadet at West Point.
At this point in his life, Poe and John Allan had a final falling out and parted ways in no small part because John Allan believed that Poe was responsible for Frances’ death of tuberculosis.
His publishing career started promptly after leaving the military with a collection of poems Tamerlane and Other Poems in 1827. The byline was “A Bostonian”. The collection nearly sold out in all outlets. Unfortunately only 50 copies were printed.
Having failed as a writer of flowery poetry, he switched to the illustrious career of literary critic. If you think life is tough for film critics today, imagine trying to be a literary journal contributor in the 1820s. His style of literary criticism required him to move a lot. He lived in several cities, including but not limited to Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York. One of the authors to feel the heat of Poe’s pen was one Rufus Griswold. More about him later.
He moved in with his aunt and his cousin. His cousin became his muse and in 1835, he married the 13 year old, Virginia Clemm.
In 1845, Poe published his poem “The Raven” to establish his overnight success. It had only been 18 years since he first published his collection of poems anonymously.
In spite of this success, Poe continued to struggle for years. Poe was one of the first Americans to try to live by his writing alone. He suffered the misfortune of a lack of international copyright laws in America. Many publishers in the US published works from Britain because there was no royalty due. This made a career of writing a difficult one. Even after publication of The Raven, Poe wasn’t a hugely successful writer.
At this point, I should point out that Edgar Allan Poe was allergic to alcohol and was an alcoholic. His allergy made him a light weight drunk. This was fortunate for Poe in that he rarely drank due to his allergy and when he did drink, he didn’t have to drink much to be fully inebriated.
Virginia, his wife and beloved cousin, died two years after the publication of “The Raven” of consumption (or tuberculosis as it’s known today). It appears his foster father’s concerns of Poe being a carrier of tuberculosis may not have been unfounded.
With contributions such as the aforementioned “The Raven”, “The Tell-Tale Heart”, “The Fall of the House of Usher”, “The Masque of the Red Death”, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, “The Pit & the Pendulum”, and of course my favorites: “The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Gold-Bug”.
Now that I think about it, Vincent Price wouldn’t have had much of a career if Poe hadn’t been writing macabre fiction.
The Death of Poe
Poe began planning and putting together his own journal “The Penn” (because it was going to be published in Philadelphia), only later to change the name to “The Stylus”. Even Poe foresaw the advent of tablet computers over 160 years ago.
Before The Stylus could see publication, Edgar Allan Poe was found in a gutter reeking of alcohol. Poe died on October 7th, 1849 at the age of 40.
There are many stories about what caused his death: alcohol poisoning, rabies, tuberculosis, and suicide amongst others.
The Enemy Gets Revenge
It turns out that Rufus Griswold was the man who authored and signed Ludwig obituary. The Ludwig obituary was the most widely published obituary of Edgar Allan Poe. Griswold and Poe were the bitterest of enemies.
Griswold obtained the rights to Poe’s works from his mother-in-law through trickery. She didn’t know that the man disliked Poe as much as he did.
In October 1850, one year after Poe’s death, Griswold published an untrue and unfavorable account of Poe’s life. He even included the account in a collection of Poe’s works making it appear that Poe had authored the work himself.
In this “Memoir” Griswold manipulated details and invented facts to leave the least favorable account he could imagine. Poe’s honorable discharge from the military was changed to desertion and Poe’s choice to not return to college became expulsion for wild and reckless behavior.
Even the details of his death that I have told you today was a figment of this man’s imagination. No one actually knows how Poe died and we’re not even sure he was an alcoholic. He may not have been a carrier of tuberculosis.
The Moral of This Story:
Be sure that you tell your story before your enemies and competitors tell it for you. Start your blog today if you haven’t already.
Some details came from a talk I attended in the early 90s and my vague recollection of the stories told by the self proclaimed fan of Poe. I left out whole swathes about him being a raging alcoholic and absinthe consumer from that talk. I’m not convinced about the fan part.
There are some interesting bits about the Poe Toaster, who has visited his grave every year on Poe’s birthday since the year he died.